Touch in counselling is a hot potato; depending on your training, shaking hands might be OK, but how about a reassuring hand on a shoulder? How about therapeutic touch which even when included in trainings, is widely feared?
This is particularly incongruous at a time when ideas taken from body psychotherapy such as somatic resonance, watching breath patterns and observing body-felt experiences have become the mainstream in humanistic counselling practices. Sadly the taboo around touch is leaving clients bereft of powerful resources that are outside of the counsellors’ reach.
One client reported:
"Having biodynamic bodywork in tandem with my therapy has allowed me to access and let go of the emotions I have been holding in my body all my life. Through live experience of how my body makes contact with my massage therapist’s hands, I have deepened my awareness of my physical process and this provides me with SO much more information than most therapies could ever uncover. I feel as if I have been handed back to myself in my best, most alive and joyful form."
Clients who are in counselling and simultaneously receiving bodywork experience great benefits, for example:
• Non-verbal material can emerge
• Muscular and tissue armouring can be dissolved
• Themes become understood more deeply
• Lost aspects of themselves are re-integrated
• They grow a greater sense of their own autonomic wellbeing
• Cycles of reaction can be completed
My background is in Biodynamic therapy, in this modality massage is an integrated part of the therapy that also includes verbal and mattress work. Biodynamic psychotherapy was heavily influenced by the work of Wilhelm Reich and was created in the 1950’s by Gerda Boyesen. Her pioneering energy-based work has now filtered into the mainstream of both bodywork and psychotherapy. I no longer practice psychotherapy and find that intentional touch alone has a powerful therapeutic effect on mind and body alike.
There are three main ways in which the bodywork will complement counselling:
1. Releasing emotions held in the body so that they can be experienced and brought to the counselling.
2. Aiding the integration of material from a counselling session and working towards the completion of a cycle of reaction.
3. Bringing mindful, here and now body awareness of how the body is in the moment.
Here are some examples of the different ways that bodywork can start to release emotional patterns which can be brought to their counselling.
Clients who over intellectualise or are otherwise unable to feel emotions often come to a point where they get stuck going round and round in their heads. The next step is to become aware of the sensation and thus the emotions in their body. When they feel safe enough and can allow themselves to be present to the touch, the resistance (in the form of muscular tension or tissue tone) can melt so the feelings become available.
For some clients, working with the physical symptoms of their distress can be a way in. Back problems, naturally lend themselves to the couch but rather than ‘taking away’ the pain, a bodyworker can bring the clients awareness more deeply into the sensations present; inviting a colour or images or deepening the sensation can all help to make connections with their life circumstances.
Taking a hands on approach to the belly is a delicate matter but the most radical shifts I see come from working with the belly and womb, where we literally get into the shit!
- Releasing and starting to heal sexual trauma
- Allowing childhood and pre-verbal feelings to emerge
- Issues around feeding and needs being met often arise from this work
The diaphragm can be seen as a kind of gateway, keeping the unconscious ‘down there’ and softening this area of the body often allows the movement of energy upward into the head, letting feeling and meaning emerge.
Releasing the breath will naturally allow for a fuller range of being, giving massage to the back, ribs, diaphragm area and upper chest will allow a more spontaneous breath pattern to emerge.
- Allowing the sobbing where grief was not present before
- Developing a joy in and gratitude for being alive
- Awareness of natural cycles of activity and rest
Bodywork can access pre-verbal and attachment issues that often elude talk therapies.
- early infant issues,
- issues around being held,
- needs being met/not met etc.
In our busy culture, there is a chronic failure to complete the last part of the cycle. The rest, emotional digestion and reflection that we need to integrate experience is often neglected as we constantly start new cycles of stimulation and activity. Clients receiving bodywork alongside their counselling or therapy have the opportunity to integrate and digest material that has been brought up; to literally lower the charge from current situations and complete old cycles from the past.
Biodynamic bodywork uses a stethoscope to listen to the peristalsis in the gut which stands as a metaphor for the emotional digestion of new content. From her therapeutic observations, Gerda Boyesen theorised that the peristaltic action of the gut was a way that the body processed and released stored emotional energy through what she called ‘psycho-peristalsis’, and as such would listen to the peristalsis of her clients as she massaged them. In Biodynamic bodywork we dissolve the blocked energy so it can be processed by the gut and released.
Theta brain waves
As with meditation and deep sleep, bodywork can also induce theta brain waves. Clients can experience vivid visualisations and creative insights while basking in this delicious state which allows for the completion of their experiences.
Positive body image
The bodyworker, holding her client in an unconditionally positive regard, communicates these feelings through her hands, so that the client can feel pleasure in her body too. Over time this becomes integrated and previously unlovable parts of the body are reclaimed.
- Shamed body parts become more acceptable
- Supporting a sense of trusting the body
The combination of safety and contact means that the client can come into relationship with herself, and experience herself as whole.
This client feedback speaks powerfully about acceptance:
“The empathy and non-judgement conveyed through the total acceptance of my body have allowed me space in which to meet myself as openly as I believe possible and thus to learn to relate to myself rather than just you or another therapist.”
Or as another client with anxiety issues remarked after a session: “I feel OK, I can let go, my world is good.”
As touch increases production of oxytocin and serotonin and reduces cortisol, the body naturally becomes a place of joy.
Here and now Mindfulness is now a mainstream tool for managing stress and mental health but what is less well know in how therapeutic touch also brings people into relationship with their bodies in the here and now.
Clients often bring in issues they’ve discussed from their therapy and experience how they are manifesting in their bodies. For example, with resistance and closing down in relationship with partner, we can work (explicitly or implicitly) on releasing the heart and staying with the contact, so the client can tolerate more contact and sensation in the body over time.
Paradoxical theory of change
Perls theory is just as true for therapeutic touch. When the bodyworker makes contact with the intention to meet the client in their resistance or difficulty, and stays present, this can allow the client to also accept and be present with the difficulty as it is felt in the body. Very often, this here and now awareness allows the tensions to melt away.
First find a bodyworker
For the counselling and bodywork practices to work together to benefit the client, a number of elements need to be present.
Obviously the therapist must practice within the limits of her training and know when to suggest the client take the material to counselling. It helps if she has had some psychotherapy or counselling training herself which will help her to understand appropriate boundaries. Many bodywork therapists do seek out counselling training because of the material that clients release in sessions.
It could be easy for the bodyworker to become the ‘good’ therapist and the counsellor the ‘bad’. To avoid splitting, it helps if the bodyworker brings the counselling into the sessions; suggesting that material is taken to the next session for example. Just acknowledging that these two modalities are working together to empower the client can be enough. When the counsellor brings body observations and experiments into sessions, this will further reinforce the benefits.
Finding a therapist
Finding an appropriate referral is key for success, as bodywork differs not only by modality but from person to person. The best way to find out whether a massage therapist would be suitable for your client is to get a massage or bodywork session yourself and see how it feels. After all, you can claim it against your tax and as you have a stressful, sedentary job, you are definitely going to benefit from a therapeutic touch.
Kate offers Menstrual Medicine Circles for menopause and menstruation, Intuitive Bodywork for sensitive women, retreats for women at Woman Kind and makes the amazing Pants of Empowerment.